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Whose Dignity?: Abolishing Child Marriage for the Girl Child

Key words: child marriage, child bride, girlfriend theology

“Although many people are against this marriage, I will not succumb to the pressure and let Ayu go. Our marriage is permissible in Islam, even though it is against the law,” said the 41-year-old Malay-Muslim Malaysian man of his 11-year-old Thai bride who is his third wife.[1] The public outcry that followed a year ago, continues to raise cultural sensitivities around the issue of abolishing child marriage in Malaysia. What lies at the heart of these cultural sensitivities?

                The main point of contention is touted to be the permissibility of child marriages from an Islamic standpoint. Proponents often cite the youth of Aishah, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives who was a mere six-year-old (this itself is highly debatable among Islamic scholars) with the marriage consummated three years later. The National Fatwa Council of Malaysia which issues religious edicts (fatwa) advised that the Prophet’s marriage to Aishah was driven by the contingencies of a “war-stricken state” to protect those orphaned and widowed by war, and that Muslims are “neither encouraged nor compelled to follow such practice” in contemporary times especially if they brought harm.[2] With the consent of parents or legal guardians and the Syariah court, Muslim youth in Malaysia are permitted to marry below 18 and 16 years for men and women, respectively (for non-Muslims, the legal marrying age is 18 for both sexes).

                Other religious-based cultural sensitivities that further justify child marriages include:  the transgression of close proximity (khalwat) between unmarried persons that may give rise to suspicion of “immoral acts”, as outlined in Section 27 of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997 which on conviction, in addition to the shame and stigma attached, persons are “liable to a fine not exceeding three thousand ringgit (equivalent to USD718) or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both”. Worse, to commit zina or unlawful sexual intercourse, i.e. out of wedlock, carries graver penalties. To marry one’s daughter off to her rapist, an extension of zina, is to safeguard the “dignity” of her parents and the unborn’s right to inheritance from its father’s estate (if not born out of wedlock).[3]

                Girls Not Brides, a global network committed to ending child marriage, notes the incongruence of adhering to religious-motivated justifications for child marriage when the government of Malaysia has acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) in 1995 which sets the minimum age of marriage of 18. The rights framework insists on the harmfulness of child marriage on girls in particular on physical, psychological, educational, economic, emotional and spiritual grounds. Girls’ bodies thus become sites of moral and political contestations.

                Where is her dignity if she is bereft of informed consent in the name of family honour and religion? At the heart of cultural sensitivities lies gender binaries that are not adequately troubled: the imperative to marry and procreate which leads many to prematurely marry off their daughters (disproportionately more than sons) as economic burdens; the naturalness of women’s lot in life as wives and mothers; and the valorisation of virginity as the sum worth of girls and women. Recuperating not only the rights but also dignity of the girl-child, created imago Dei, is to start theology from their lived realities. Doing “girlfriend theology”[4] is to recuperate their voices silenced by systemic discrimination against the girl-child by familial, religious, legal and political institutions. It is to empower the girl-child against gender-based violence sustained by the weight of tradition and propriety.

[1] Abdul Rahim, N. F. and Ibrahim, R. (2018, July 2). “I will not let Ayu go: Husband of Thai child bride. New Straits Times. Retrieved from

[2] Sisters in Islam and ARROW (2018). National report: Malaysia – Child marriage: Its relationship with religion, culture and patriarchy. Retrieved from, p. 42.

[3] Ibid., pp. 19-21.

[4] Baker, D. G. (2005). Doing girlfriend theology: God-talk with young women. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press.